Armin Laschet’s East German Tightrope

When polling stations close next Sunday evening in the East German state of Saxony-Anhalt and the first exit poll results flicker over the screens, one German will be watching with particular attention: Armin Laschet, the embattled German Christian Democrats’ (CDU) candidate for Chancellor. This regional election, the last before all Germans head to the polls on 26 September, is widely considered a litmus test for Laschet’s ability to lift the CDU and CSU out of the losing streak they had in opinion polls and two regional elections in March and April this year, and to become Chancellor.

While in Germany’s Western Länder, the CDU/CSU’s declared chief opponent (and potential future coalition partner) are the Greens, in Germany’s East, the main competitor is the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). In Saxony-Anhalt, the AfD has been breathing down the CDU’s neck in the polls, just as the Greens have in the West, where they even overtook the CDU for some weeks in April. Nationwide, Laschet has been catching up recently, but if in this Land the AfD beats the CDU, or even comes close, he’ll be in trouble again.

And with this prospect, the old German East-West question is back on the table: the Ossi-Wessi debate about what went well and not so well in the last three decades since unification in 1990.[1] Since their 13 percent score in the last federal election of 2017, the AfD has been falling back to single-digit results in Western Länder, but in the East, it has actually replaced the Left Party (Die Linke – the follow-up to the East German Communist Party) as the go-to option for Ossis who feel disenfranchised by a politically correct, urban, West German-dominated mainstream. Ever since the migration crisis of 2015, in Germany’s East, the East vs. West question has been strongly overlapping with the centre-right vs. right divide. The resentment-driven spirit of being ‘left behind’ and under-represented is the same in both cases. And in no German party has this been more virulent than in the CDU in the East, which is deeply riven between those who, by and large, see the AfD as the main opponent and those who can imagine cooperating with them, and say so publicly.

The list of tensions within the Eastern chapters of the CDU, and between Eastern and Western Christian Democrats, is long. To name only the most important recent milestones: in 2019, there was a flirt with AfD in the Thuringian state parliament that was nipped in the bud, but still led to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s resignation as CDU chair. In 2021, the nomination for the Bundestag in Southern Thuringia of an ultraconservative former counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism chief, Heinz-Georg Maaßen, drew loud protests from centrists in the party. And a few days ago, the statement by the Federal Government’s Eastern Länder envoy Marco Wanderwitz that some East German voters are ‘lost to democracy’ because of their socialisation in the GDR dictatorship, was followed with angry reactions among Eastern conservatives. The fact that, counter-intuitively, Maaßen is West German and Wanderwitz East German has not changed the basic pattern in all these instances: Perceived Western know-it-all lecturing meets Eastern resentment.

All this is why next Sunday, not only the relative strength of the parties is important to watch, but also which coalition the – actually rather popular – state Premier from the CDU, Rainer Haseloff, might form after the election – and whether there will be more unity within the CDU, or more of the bickering we’ve seen over the past months. Armin Laschet is walking a tightrope: On the one hand, he has to draw a thick red line vis-à-vis the populist right, and rule out not only cooperation with the AfD, but also any adoption of their ideological memes about ‘globalist’ and COVID-related conspiracies, as well as the radical Ossi narrative of an alleged elite terror by the ‘liberal’ West against the ‘conservative’ East. Otherwise, he loses in the centre.

On the other hand, and to shore up the right flank, he has to subtly respond to the existing resentment among conservatives and Easterners, especially in his own party, and allow for a certain bandwidth of opinions – as is normal for a big tent party like the CDU/CSU. Above all, he has to show he can deliver in terms of policies for the people. That concerns persistent economic disparities between Wessis and Ossis, but also the pandemic: The currently improving health situation, Laschet’s job as state Premier of North Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s biggest Land, and his proven record as a smart integrator of extremes are a good point of departure for all this.

Ultimately, the CDU’s dilemma is that it is being squeezed between a dynamic liberal centre (in Germany’s case, the Greens) and a populist right, identical to the dilemma of the EPP political family at EU level in recent years. The European centre right’s survival depends on mastering this dilemma, and successfully walking that tightrope without falling off. Next Sunday will be an important bellwether for this.

[1] For a more intricate analysis of East and West German narratives about unification and its aftermath, albeit written before the emergence of AfD, cf. this essay from 2009: